Merlin Olsen, whose football career took him from the park across the street from his boyhood home in Logan to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died of cancer early Thursday at a Los Angeles-area hospital.
Olsen, 69, was being treated for mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining, during the past year. Olsen recently sued NBC Studios and other companies, alleging that exposure to asbestos caused his illness.
When his college alma mater honored him in December, Utah State University president Stan Albrecht said Olsen's condition created "some urgency" to stage the event during a basketball game, rather than wait until the 2010 football season.
The Logan native often joked about being the last player picked for informal football games in the park that now is named for him. He became an All-America lineman at Utah State, an All-Pro defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams and an acclaimed actor and broadcaster, distinguished by his warm, authoritative voice.
"We've all been touched by that voice in some way," Albrecht said.
With pursuits that extended well beyond football and an admirable concern for others, Olsen brought distinction to his hometown, his college and his state to a degree that few Utahns have achieved, "in a broad array of arenas," Albrecht said.
In December, Albrecht announced plans for the naming of Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium, where the Aggies play football. In addition, a commissioned statue of Olsen and a scholarship endowment are being funded largely by donations from Olsen's friends and former teammates.
Besides his football exploits in leading the Aggies to an 18-3-1 record and two bowl appearances in his junior and senior season and winning the Outland Trophy as college football's best lineman, Olsen was an Academic All-American in 1961. During his NFL career, he earned a master's degree in economics from USU, evidence of a multidimensional person who television broadcast partner Dick Enberg would describe as "the complete man."
Tom Ramage, who assisted Tony Knap in coaching the Aggie linemen, remembered how Olsen's intelligence contributed to his football success.
"He was a thinker," Ramage said. "He was trying to come up with new stuff all the time, ways to do it better. He was really a fun guy to work with. You had to be on your toes to coach Merlin."
Olsen went on to play 15 seasons for the Rams (1962-76) as a member of the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after each of his first 14 seasons and was a six-time All-Pro choice, while missing only two games in his career. Olsen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.
"In Rams history, there are maybe 10 guys who are iconic, and he's one of them," said Chip Rosenbloom, majority owner of the St. Louis Rams, who also honored Olsen in December. "There's nobody who is more important."
After football, Olsen transitioned easily into other endeavors and continued to bring "honor and dignity" to USU, athletic director Scott Barnes said.
Olsen starred in television's "Little House on the Prairie," "Father Murphy" and "Aaron's Way." He also joined Enberg on the No. 1 broadcast team for NBC Sports' coverage of the NFL. In a recent letter to Olsen, Enberg wrote of his partner's "uncommon willingness to prepare" for their weekly broadcasts.
Olsen also will be remembered for his charity work and caring for people.
"The thing about him that I find remarkable is never once have I heard him say a negative word about anybody in any circumstance," said Rosenbloom, who grew up with the Los Angeles Rams, formerly owned by his father, Carroll. "I just remember having a lot of admiration and respect for him because he was a unique guy on the team, just the kind of person he is -- gentle and wonderful, and treated everybody so well."